Bath heroically overcame the first-half dismissal of centre Andrew Higgins as they made it a remarkable 15th home game without defeat against Gloucester since
English league rugby began in 1987.
Gloucester would have replaced Sale Sharks at the Premiership summit had they won, but Bath shattered their unbeaten record this season through five Olly Barkley penalties and a Chris Malone drop-goal.
Higgins, having earlier been yellow-carded for a high tackle, was sent off during first-half injury time when he tripped Gloucester star Mike Tindall, an offence that warranted a second yellow.
Higgins will now face Rugby Football Union disciplinary chiefs, while Bath could also lose prop David Barnes to suspension. Barnes faces a hearing on Monday night after being cited for striking an opponent during last weekend’s Powergen Cup win against the Ospreys.
But Bath dug deep in Higgins’ absence, and Gloucester wilted, with three Ludovic Mercier penalties and his conversion of substitute full-back Rob Thirlby’s late try proving their only rewards from yet another fruitless mission down the M5.
Gloucester fielded five of England’s autumn Test squad, including former Bath centre Tindall, who returned to the Recreation Ground five months after switching west country loyalties.
The game also provided an intriguing second-row battle between 57 times-capped Bath lock Danny Grewcock and Gloucester’s England rookie Alex Brown, while Bath skipper Steve Borthwick – omitted from red rose boss Andy Robinson’s November plans – had a considerable point to prove.
Gloucester skipper Phil Vickery made his first league start for a month after recovering from shoulder trouble, leading a team in confident mood following three league wins, one draw and two Powergen Cup victories this season.
Tindall offered the first glint of attacking adventure when he evaded Bath’s first-up tacklers just inside the home half, but in keeping with a scrappy opening quarter, such promising approach work was not capitalised upon.
Barkley was well adrift with two long-range penalty attempts, but he finally found his range on 18 minutes after referee Dave Pearson penalised Gloucester following a fracas involving the forwards.
It took Barkley’s strike to stir Gloucester, and they responded as Vickery led the charge through some robust close-quarter work that put Bath on the back foot.
Vickery’s shuddering commitment gave Gloucester a territorial platform, and with Bath consistently infringing, Mercier slotted two penalties during a four-minute spell.
The Frenchman then failed to land a couple of longer-range efforts – both kicks bounced back off the post – yet Bath were rattled, especially after losing their former England full-back Matt Perry, who was helped off following a crunching midfield collision.
As Perry departed for treatment, Higgins received his first yellow card following a reckless high lunge on James Simpson-Daniel.
Gloucester knew they should have been further ahead as half-time approached, and Bath hauled themselves level through Barkley’s second penalty, awarded when flanker Peter Buxton infringed, and was subsequently sin-binned for his misdemeanour.
It was immediately 14-a-side though, as any hope Bath had of making their temporary one-man advantage count evaporated when Higgins saw red.
An astonished Higgins trooped disconsolately off on receipt of a second yellow, immediately followed by red, and although Gloucester finished an unsatisfactory half on top, there was little to enthuse a capacity crowd.
Higgins’ exit, and Perry’s departure, meant Bath began the second period with a new centre combination of Ryan Davis and Tom Cheeseman, while Barkley found himself at full-back.
Malone opened the second-half scoring by rifling over a drop-goal from 52 metres, and when Barkley completed his penalty hat-trick shortly afterwards, Gloucester were 12-6 adrift.
And it got worse for the visitors, with Barkley landing a 50-metre penalty as Bath continued to play like men possessed.
The game produced few passages of open play, but a brilliant Barkley break was followed by Tindall opening up Bath’s defence and sending Simpson-Daniel clear, and at the ensuing ruck, Bath wing David Bory’s technical infringing earnt a yellow card.
Mercier hauled Gloucester back to six points behind however, and Thirlby then scored a dashing solo try, converted from the touchline by Mercier, before Barkley landed another monster 50-metre penalty and Bath could celebrate.